By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Even if the Pentagon's supposed discovery of Atta before 9-11 succeeds in shifting some of the political blame from Bush to Clinton, it also raises new questions about the role of the Pentagon and especially that of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in 9-11 and the war on terror. And this comes at a time when the military is clamoring for a greater role in intelligence gathering.
At 9:53 on the morning of 9-11, the National Security Agency intercepted a call from an Osama bin Laden operative in Afghanistan to a person in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, as noted in the 9-11 Timeline compiled by Paul Thompson at cooperativeresearch.org. The caller said he had "heard good news" and another target was still to be hit (apparently by the plane that was brought down in the Pennsylvania countryside). This was the first firm indication the government had that bin Laden was behind the attack. Two hours later, at 12:05, CIA director George Tenet told Rumsfeld about the NSA intercept.
As reported by CBS News, based on leaked notes from a National Military Command Center teleconference, the Secretary of Defense was surprisingly reluctant to make much of the call: "Rumsfeld felt it was 'vague,' that it 'might not mean something,' and that there was 'no good basis for hanging hat.' In other words, the evidence was not clear-cut enough to justify military action against Bin Laden. But later that afternoon, the CIA reported the passenger manifests for the hijacked airliners showed three of the hijackers were suspected Al Qaeda operatives."
According to the notes, Rumsfeld learned that "one guy is associate of bomber"the Al Qaeda suicide bomber who attacked the U.S. warship in Yemen in 2000.
At 2:40, the notes report, Rumsfeld was beginning to take aim at the target close to his heart: He wants the "best info fast. Judge whether good enough hit S.H. [Saddam Hussein] at same time. Not only UBL [Osama Bin Laden]. Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not." This was the first indication that Rumsfeld was disregarding specific intelligence clearly linking the attack to Al Qaeda and instead had begun to fantasize about getting Saddam Hussein.
Hours later, White House terrorism adviser Richard Clarke went to the White House for meetings that Clarke believed would concern U.S. vulnerabilities, possible future attacks, and what might be done to prevent them. As he writes in one of the most famous passages from his book, Clarke "instead walked into a series of discussions about Iraq."
"At first," Clarke writes, "I was incredulous that we were talking about something other than getting Al Qaeda. Then I realized with almost a sharp physical pain that Rumsfeld and [Deputy Defense Secretary Paul] Wolfowitz were going to try to take advantage of this national tragedy to promote their agenda about Iraq. Since the beginning of the administration, indeed well before, they had been pressing for a war with Iraq. My friends in the Pentagon had been telling me that the word was we would be invading Iraq sometime in 2002."
Rumsfeld's breezy dismissal of Al Qaeda's involvement in the attacks in the face of specific intelligence is hard to fathom. And if there is buried somewhere in the Pentagon a military intelligence operationits existence approved at the highest levelsthat knew all about Atta and Al Qaeda, then Rumsfeld's behavior is indefensible.
The 9-11 Commission was established to get to the bottom of the attacks that day. However, it often skipped over key issues:
*Bush and Cheney were interviewed together, in secret, with no record of the meeting.
*Florida senator Bob Graham's joint congressional inquiry had unearthed the outlines of what may have been a Saudi spy operation linked to Al Qaeda and operating in the U.S. But the commission dismissed Saudi involvement and cleared the royal family.
*The commission had no time for FBI translator Sibel Edmonds, who came up with one tale after another of fishy operations in the FBI translations section, including the mind-boggling information that FBI interpreters were being sent to Guantánamo to translate languages they could not speak.
*The congressional joint inquiry discovered that an FBI informant on the West Coast, unbeknownst to the Bureau, rented an apartment to two hijackers. When Graham tried to interview the landlord, the FBI refused. Later a top FBI official told Graham that the White House had blocked the informant's testimony. The commission dismissed all this.
*The commission skipped over the scandalous mess at the FAA, suppressing a staff study saying that the agency had ignored numerous warnings issued in the months before the attack. After the election, the commission released parts of this study, leaving some of it classified.
*The commission never seriously inquired into intelligence failures at the Hamburg cell where Atta lived off and on and which was a key center for planning the attacks.
Every day it looks as if the government's main probe of 9-11 has turned into a political fix.
Additional reporting: Halley Bondy